Wednesday, February 4, 2009

We Can Work It Out

Beatles fans know a thing or two about disagreement. Forever and ever, fans will bicker with one another on such pressing issues as, Whose fault WAS it that the band broke up? Was George actually the genius Beatle? Would the White Album have been stronger had it been condensed into a single disk, as George Martin wanted it to be? Which single was their pinnacle achievement? And most of all, who's the better songwriter: John Lennon or Paul McCartney? The last question in particular is one worth shedding some blood over. It's a question that defines a person's tastes not just in Beatles music, but arguably in Life. Itself.

Still, though, I think I speak for fans everywhere when I say that what we all like most to see is two of our favorite songwriters just getting along with each other, especially when a totally genius song is the result. And that's why "We Can Work It Out" is such a joy, such a standout in the Beatles catalog. It's the perfect collaboration-- Paul wrote the verse, John wrote the bridge, and together they made one of my personal favorites.

Dear God, I know I talked about this on "Day Tripper"-- no coincidence, as that was the opposite side of the "We Can Work It Out" single-- but listen to the tambourine! That time around the tambourine just sang to me. I never noticed how awesome it was before. They should have just called this single "'Day Tripper' c/w 'We Can Work It Out' and starring The Tambourine."

OK, sorry. Ahem. So, I feel like "We Can Work It Out" has been written about very frequently-- again, because the fans love a John/Paul collaboration-- and the general take by the Beatle opinion-makers is that the back and forth plays out in a way that would seem to cement all the Paul and John stereotypes. Paul's verse is in major, John's bridge is in minor. Paul's lyrics are hopeful and flirty, while John's express philosophical frustration. Paul sings by himself, while John likes vocal harmonies. Paul's melody is bouncy and has a decent pitch range, and John's melody is more of a drone.

But I don't like to reduce the song to compare/contrast statements when there's so much more happening. Paul begins by going almost straight into the vocal, and though he's singing charmingly as ever, the lyrics are a little bit acidic, basically threatening (sweetly) that this disagreement might mean the end of the relationship. As he goes, the words come quickly, which seem to betray that Paul is full of feeling, but also babbling a bit-- "you can get it wrong and still you think that it's all right" isn't the most erudite lyric Paul ever wrote. Still, though, this is sincere and ultimately optimistic writing-- we can work it out, after all-- and John's solid, crescendoing harmonium part and Ringo's rattling tambourine act as musical smiles of reassurance. Then when John's vocal comes in, things get quite serious, as if the speaker is leaning in a little closer and taking a deep breath before saying, "Look. Life is very short..." The harmonium no longer seems to be smiling-- the long sustained notes sound more like deep furrows in a brow-- and the tambourine and drums are more insistent, coming in heavily on each beat. And then, the move into triplets, which in this context sounds almost like a stutter to me, a moment when the speaker wanders off too far into his own head and doesn't like what he sees. It's just a second, though, before Paul's melody and our comforting major key comes back, but the lyrics show less bravado this time around. Only time will tell if Paul is right or Paul is wrong. But still, we can work it out-- can we? The melody doesn't resolve-- it ends with Paul on a leading tone, a musical question mark. And that weird triplet figure is what plays us out.

Look at how sophisticated this little musical argument is-- we don't even know what the argument is about, yet the emotional tension stretches and relaxes and stretches again, in this totally relatable way, all in the space of a two-minute pop song. "We Can Work It Out" is a song you can bop your head to, or solemnly mull over, depending on your mood. Me, I like to sing along-- for all else it has going on, I find this song super singable, one of the most fun to sing in the whole canon. Still, though, it hints at darkness that I don't think had been hinted at before-- it's a very neurotic song for the Beatles at this point.

"We Can Work It Out" was released as a single the same day as Rubber Soul in both Britain and the States. Together they must have been a powerful statement about the Beatles' new direction, no?
Enough. Tomorrow I promise I'll do some dancey song and be way, way, way less pedantic.

"We Can Work It Out," released in the U.K. on double A-side w/"Day Tripper," December 3, 1965; in the U.S. December 6, 1965.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous


  1. We like pedantic! Don't take it away!

  2. Well, I guess it's true that no one would be reading this at all if they didn't enjoy a good pedant. No worries-- I'll be carrying on.